Friday, January 30, 2009

Gaza: Laboratory for the Power-Hungry

EXCERPT: Unfortunately for the people of Gaza, all the bloodshed there wasn't really about Gaza. Despite the tenuous January 18, 2009 ceasefire, the issue of Gaza remains unresolved not because the sides disagree but because all sorts of external actors find the dispute useful. The larger reality is that Gaza serves as a cold-hearted laboratory for these external actors for testing dangerous hypotheses about far greater global political issues.

TEXT: Gaza is a relatively straightforward problem, small in scale, neatly walled in, with obvious untried potential solutions that Israel could implement literally overnight and unilaterally at no financial cost and relatively low security risk. For example, Israel could allow the people of Gaza to have food, medicine, and electricity; it could encourage the development of civil society and the formation of a wide range of political factions. Were Israeli security truly the issue, Israel could easily demonstrate the attractiveness of cooperating with it rather than supporting Hamas. Indeed, Israel could return to its January 2006 policy of allowing Hamas to participate in democratic politics. That it does not take either of these paths suggests that the security issue ("Hamas rockets") is a myth.

It is worth recalling what ensued after Palestine's only democratic election, in January 2006--an election backed by Tel Aviv and Washington. A governance crisis erupted after Tel Aviv and Washington, shocked by Hamas' popularity, intervened to subvert the Hamas regime set up following its January 2006 election victory. At first Tel Aviv and Washington employed economic pressure in an attempt to destroy the ability of Hamas to govern. This governing crisis widened when military assistance was provided to Fatah by Washington and Tel Aviv along with encouragement to launch a civil war to prevent Hamas from governing. A mini-civil war occurred and resulted in Hamas being kicked out of power in the West Bank but retaining control over Gaza, thereby creating two competing Palestinian administrations. Hamas had changed its approach and had been following democratic rules, working within the system. Might it have pursued this path permanently if given the chance? The world will never know; Tel Aviv did not wait to find out; rather, it attacked Hamas, overthrowing the results of the election it had approved in its Palestinian colony before the tiger had had time even to breathe, much less indicate whether or not it was truly changing its stripes.

On the surface, only stubbornness and denial of the obvious prevent Tel Aviv from experimenting with the many available alternatives to the policy of brutal suppression and collective punishment. Even if Tel Aviv insisted upon collective punishment of the people of Gaza for supporting Hamas, for example, Tel Aviv could make a showcase of the West Bank, whose Fatah government is closely following Israeli orders. If Tel Aviv and its supporters wished seriously to make the case that Hamas is the problem, all they would have to do is support the emergence of genuine West Bank Palestinian autonomy, provide meaningful amounts of economic assistance for the West Bank, treat Palestinians there with some measure of respect, and generally enable West Bank Palestinians to improve their prospects. Then Israel could turn to Gazans and persuasively say, “Were it not for those nasty radicals of Hamas, you too could stand tall.” But there is a deeper causality operating, as Tel Aviv's hypocritical response to the January 2006 electoral results indicate.

Why Tel Aviv Cannot Solve the Gaza Problem

Tel Aviv is prevented from allowing the West Bank Palestinians to progress because of Tel Aviv’s insistence on swallowing the best parts of the West Bank into a greater Israel. A greater Israel means permanent repression of Palestinians. There is simply no way the tiny West Bank can form a legitimate country with its territory crisscrossed by Israeli-controlled and -inhabited land, Jew-only highways, and—of course—the wall that imprisons the West Bank’s population. It is not just Gazans who live imprisoned inside an Israeli wall, in, to use the pointed word of the Vatican, a “concentration” camp. This policy of repressing the West Bank gives the lie to Tel Aviv’s hypocritical protestations that it is the behavior of Hamas that is the problem.

Caught in its own web of hypocrisy, Tel Aviv oppresses Gaza and the West Bank with equal harshness, albeit for different reasons. It oppresses the West Bank because it wishes to eliminate the Palestinian residents as an organized society and steal the land for itself. It oppresses Gaza because the only visible alternative is effectively to admit that radical Hamas is right. Tel Aviv would like simply to throw Gaza away, whatever that might mean, and never think about it again. The problem with Hamas, from Tel Aviv’s perspective, is that Hamas is preventing Israel from discarding Gaza. Tel Aviv’s desires relative to the West Bank could not be more different: it treasures the West Bank for both historical/religious and blatantly imperial reasons. It wants the land, the strategic depth, and the water of the West Bank to enhance the power of Israel.

Only Hamas stands in the way of this fundamental Israeli strategic project because Hamas insists upon genuine Palestinian liberty. That is why Tel Aviv hates and refuses to deal with Hamas. The rockets have nothing whatsoever to do with Tel Aviv’s attitude; they are a symptom that could be eliminated by a second’s worth of sincere diplomacy. The rockets are in fact a tremendous gift to Tel Aviv because they obscure Tel Aviv’s true intentions. (More irony here: by using the ineffectual but visually impressive rockets, Hamas plays into the hands of Tel Aviv hardliners, but were Hamas to give up the rockets, the world would simply ignore Gaza, so it cannot.) The fact is that Hamas represents Palestinian independence; Hamas is the only force resisting the permanent consolidation of Palestinian Bantustan, which has been the fundamental goal of Israeli foreign policy for most of the last generation.

Tel Aviv can of course continue almost endlessly killing every radical leader who volunteers to fight for Palestinian independence; Tel Aviv after all has a blank check to claim victimhood and use violence. But since it is Israeli repression that generates Palestinian resistance and the cycle of rising repression and rising resistance that radicalizes that resistance, Tel Aviv has a serious problem: by repressing all Palestinians, even the groveling Fatah, it legitimizes radicalism. Palestinians have nowhere else to turn. Israel is playing with fire: provoking Arab nationalism and provoking Arab radicalism and then leaving both sentiments in the hands of Hamas. The more effective Israel’s attacks over the short-term, the worse its security situation will become. Indeed, the best outcome for long-term security of the Israeli people would probably be a military defeat so stunning that it shocked Israel into a fundamental rethinking of how best to ensure its long-term survival.

Should Tel Aviv succeed in destroying the particular movement called Hamas, it would likely be a Pyrrhic victory because the issue is not those particular individuals in that particular organization. After all, even Hamas joined in 2006 the political process approved by Israel, agreed to a ceasefire in the summer of 2008, and expressed willingness to extend the ceasefire just before Israel’s invasion (provided obviously that Israel implement its side of the bargain, namely, rescind or at least moderate its economic warfare against Gaza, which it failed to do, thus provoking Hamas to return to firing rockets).

The issue is not Hamas; the issue is the process that is generating combined nationalist, Islamist organizations and granting them leadership of the Palestinian independence movement. To combine nationalism and fundamentalism in the hands of one group enormously empowers such a group. Moreover, the more successful its repression, the greater the resistance. It does not take a very profound understanding of dynamics to realize that this is a losing struggle for Israel: if it is the Israeli tactics that cause the problem, then the solution is not more such tactics but new tactics.

The first price that Tel Aviv pays for this hypocritical and aggressive strategic policy is the building up of Hamas as a greater-than-life liberator of Palestinians. Hamas can legitimately claim to have done some good with its administration and its charities, but Hamas governance is hardly something Palestinians given free choice would rush to support. It is only Israel’s behavior that puts Hamas in the driver’s seat. It is obvious to all that the security of the Israeli people would be far greater with some less radical and less fundamentalist force leading the Palestinian people, but Tel Aviv’s expansionist intentions lock it into the ironic and tragic position of empowering radical, Islamist Hamas – tragic because it unnecessarily generates a cycle of increasing violence.

Global Implications of Gaza

But the importance of Gaza transcends the fate of its tortured population. Gaza has broad implications for many other far more intractable problems, such as Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The world would do well to analyze the real causal dynamics generating all the heat in Gaza. It's is a relatively controllable laboratory for conducting experiments in how to resolve Western-Islamic differences. Gaza could make a real contribution to world peace by serving as a model for finding common ground instead of serving to justify the most rabid calls for violence coming out of both Western and Muslim societies.

It sounds cruel to use the term "experiment," but the fact is that the political forces manipulating Gazans are in effect conducting social and military experiments.

  • Tel Aviv, for example, is very consciously testing the hypothesis that if collective punishment is sufficiently harsh, it will force the population to give its support to the oppressor.

  • Hamas is testing the hypothesis that the harsher the collective punishment of Gaza, the more the nationalist indignation of Gazans will be stimulated.

  • Tehran is testing the hypothesis that vociferous rhetorical support for Arab dissident movements plus dribbles of funding and the (perhaps true) rumors of military aid will make Iran a major regional player.

  • Conservative Arab dictators are testing the hypothesis that the Arab street really doesn't have any significant pan-Arab nationalist feeling.

  • Washington is testing the hypothesis that Muslim nationalists, reformers, and radicals can all be lumped together and defeated through brute force.

Control over these experiments should be taken out of the hands of the various neoconservative and otherwise violence-addicted groups now responsible for the endless cycle of death and destruction. It's highly pertinent to note that Hamas is testing a hypothesis related specifically to all Palestinians -- not just Gazans -- for Hamas all roads lead at least to the West Bank, probably to Jerusalem and (Israelis fear) perhaps to all of Israel but their ambitions do not seem to lie elsewhere. Were Hamas to march slowly through agonizing violence over a period of years to victory after victory, that process might well encourage wider, pan-Arab ambitions. Ironically, a conciliatory stance by Tel Aviv granting genuine independence to Palestine with fair terms would have the opposite effect, probably leaving Hamas satisfied and preoccupied with competing for power within Palestine as a normal political party.

Gaza's Tragedy; World's Warning

The other actors, however, are testing hypotheses for direct application to much broader issues. Hence the appropriateness of the use of the term "experiment." An experiment is a small-scale trial for a larger purpose. The ultimate tragedy of Gaza is that everyone is exploiting it as a laboratory for testing policies of extreme importance for much larger issues. Aside from Hamas, none of the players cares about Gaza at all. Israelis concerned about security; Arabs concerned with domestic civil rights; Iranians afraid of being attacked by Western proponents of "preventive" war; Fatah members interested in Palestinian independence; and Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Kashmiris, and Somalis trying to pacify their societies all should realize that their struggles will be directly and forcefully impacted by the lessons that the experimenters learn in Gaza.

Unfortunately for all of those groups, the lessons being learned so far are reinforcing the determination of those who believe in resolving disagreement with force. As with the summer 2008 ceasefire between Hamas and Tel Aviv, the current one failed even to produce the minimal Israeli concession of allowing the people of Gaza to go about their lives in normal fashion with access to food, medicine, and energy. As long as Gazans remain not only imprisoned but imprisoned under the collective punishment of economic embargo, radicalism will be empowered.

Hamas rocket attacks substantively stopped on January 18, just as after the summer 2008 ceasefire, but, again as in the summer, Israel's economic warfare against Gaza remains in place. Gazans remain under Israeli colonial control and subject to Israeli collective punishment. How then can any Palestinian politician justify compromising with Israel? Hence, the implications for the security of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are negative.

For Muslim groups beyond Palestine, Gaza serves as a warning of storms to come. Arabs concerned with domestic civil rights see Egypt not only supporting Israeli suppression of Hamas but simultaneously suppressing its own Muslim Brotherhood. The message is clear: no concessions to the people.

That Israel got away with a military tour de force at minimal immediate military cost is likely only to encourage those Israelis who have already set their sights on regime change in Tehran. These Israelis are likely to dismiss talk of Israel having lost support globally or tarnished its image by its brutality; rather, they will cite Israel's smooth, rapid exit and proclaim the inevitability of Israeli military victory over all enemies. The outcome of this invasion of Gaza thus raises the likelihood of a conflict with Iran, both directly to the degree that it encourages Israeli adventurists and indirectly to the degree that it frightens Iranians and empowers Iranian radicals.

Tel Aviv could now use its demonstration of military prowess in Gaza as the basis for a historic policy shift toward real compromise with Palestine, but history suggests that Tel Aviv will instead take away from the latest battle that brutal force is the road to success. In that case, Fatah will find itself domestically humiliated and, vis-à-vis Tel Aviv, negotiating while standing on quicksand. The implication for the West Bank, then, is continued movement toward "Palestinian Bantustan," with Israelis living on the best land, driving on Jewish-only highways, and completely controlling Palestinians.

The Gaza war will almost certainly empower Muslim radicals arguing that compromise with the West is pointless because "the West only understands the language of force." This suggests the coming of further domestic chaos in such Muslim societies as Pakistan and Somalia.

Lessons for Washington

The big question mark lies in Washington. New administrations are expected to bring fresh thinking. The timing is perfect for President Barack Obama to state that the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence need not be endless, that the Holy Land should be a place of peace, that Israel should -- given American backing -- have the self-confidence to treat Palestinians with respect and sincerity.

Obama might point out that Tel Aviv can continue almost endlessly killing every radical leader who volunteers to fight for Palestinian independence only at a grievous price. He might make the argument that Israeli repression generates Palestinian resistance resulting in a cycle of rising repression and resistance. Indeed, Obama might argue, the more effective Israel's attacks over the short term, the worse its security situation will become over the long term.

Given the completely one-sided nature of the war in Gaza, endless opportunities exist to demonstrate a new policy of "security from good-neighborliness." Indeed, one need not even go that far; just an Israeli policy of rewarding desired behavior would take the region a long way. The end to Hamas rocket attacks should be met with the end to the Israeli economic embargo. The minimum necessary step to enable Israel to move toward morally firm ground is the end to collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

Ending Israel's economic war against Gaza wouldn't remotely solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem, which requires facing up to the contradiction between a West Bank Bantustan and the concept of Palestinian "independence." Nor would it resolve even the problem of Gaza, which will require addressing the issue of freedom of choice for Gazans about their future. Nevertheless, it would put the initiative in the hands of the Obama administration and change the tone of the experiments being carried out in Gaza. Gaza could then be transformed from a laboratory for testing hypotheses about how to force adversaries into submission into a test case for finding ways to achieve mutually acceptable compromises between Islam and the West.


Note: My thanks to Foreign Policy in Focus for publishing the original version of this article on January 29, 2009).

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